If you could get all the nutrition you needed in a day with a pill, no worrying about what to eat, no food preparation, would you do it?

On some, rare day I might want to pop a pill. But on a permanent basis? No way!

Food is not just nutrition for us, just as man is not just a collection of chemicals. There is also an intelligence that lives in our body. I am not referring to brain power. I am talking of the intelligence that tells each cell of the body how to behave, where to go, when to reproduce and when to die. A human body is a container for the life force that directs the collection of chemicals what they must do to let the human live.

Pills, no matter how nutritious, cannot become food. There is too much drama wafting in the aromas of food, too much life interwoven in its textures. It is around food that life’s richest tapestries are woven. The patterns in these tapestries are created by the relationships of the people who are immortalized by becoming an eternal part of it. The colors are born as the emotional sum of feelings when these moments were being lived. How could a pill hold such richness of perceptions within its limited shape?

I can never talk about food without remembering Buaji (Father’s sister, aunt). Technically, she wasn’t my buaji, but all the kids called her that, including her own kids.

My father had a very close friend. The friend had a huge extended family, brothers and cousins, all living together. They ran a auto garage. I have no idea whatsoever how many of them there were. And it isn’t only because I was barely six- seven years old. They were a numerous family.

Their house was in the middle of an estate that must have been a lot more than one acre (1 acre= 44,000 square feet). The garage was out in the front of the property. The house was at the back and could be reached by walking down a path lined with enormous tamrind trees on both sides with squirrels running up and down the trees and across the path. I spent hours sitting under one of the trees, agog with curiosity, watching the squirrels- and they watching me back as curiously.

The house was huge, naturally. For the life of me I don’t remember how many rooms it had. All I remember is that it had a sloping, tiled roof and a stone floor. The family have lived in that house for over four generations. The stones of the floor were worn smooth with hollows in some places.

As was normal in old style houses, the washrooms and toilets were outside the house, at the back. The kitchen was a huge,separate, raised room to the left of the house. The cooking was mostly done on a wood fire and a coal brazier (sigari).

Buaji was the indisputable mistress of the kitchen. She had been widowed at a young age. As was normal in those times, her in-laws had refused to let her live in their house. She and her two children had nowhere to go but to the home of her brothers. She was considered very lucky that her brothers took her in.

No matter what time you entered the kitchen, you would find Buaji sitting on her low stool, ordering one of the servants around. She always wore a white cotton sari with which she covered her head. I never saw her in any other room of the house. It never occurred to me then, but now it seems as if she was trying to make sure that she made herself useful so that her brothers or their wives would not resent her. She wasn’t very successful in that, I was aware of it even then.

The family had a large dining table in the room closest to the kitchen. This is where the adults were served their food. The kids all ate in the kitchen with buaji’s eagle eye upon them to ensure that no food was wasted and the plates were polished clean with not a single grain of aromatic rice or a trace of a delectable curry left on it.

Many, many are the meals I ate in that hallowed, simple room. While my father would be in the garage, fretting over his Austin of England with one of the mechanics, I would be chased off to the house by his friend. I was more than eager to go to the house always. The squirrels, the many, many kids of all ages and buaji’s food were more than incentive for me. I simply loved it there. God bless that dear old car which would fall ill so frequently!

Come lunch time, we had to scrub our hands and feet with the clay that was kept in a stone pit beside the tap behind the kitchen. Leaving our footwear at the bottom of the stairs, we’d climb the five stairs and enter the kitchen whose walls were dark with the soot of the wood fires. Buaji’s spotless white saree and pale colorless face would create an eerie contrast. We would be too lost in the delicacies on our plate to notice anything.

Onion and garlic were forbidden in buaji’s pure vegetarian kitchen. For the life of me I don’t know what she did to the food. I could never stop eating until buaji would tell me firmly that I had eaten enough. The phulkas(Indian wheat bread) would be light as air and so soft as to melt in your mouth. The memory of the aroma of home- made ghee (clarified butter) dripping off those phulkas can transport me back to buaji’s kitchen in a trice.

I particularly looked forward to the days when she would serve dal- chawal (rice and lentils). The fragrant yellow dal would be not be tempered but would be served with a huge dollop of ghee floating on it. A bit of paradise in the form of a slice of spicy and tart raw mango pickle, and I would be in heaven. Those days buaji didn’t have an easy time telling me I’ve had enough. I wouldn’t be convinced at all.

Although buaji always had a servant or two to help her with the preparations, she did all the cooking with her own hands. She was always the last one to eat. I am not sure this actually happened with her, but it is very likely that there would be no dal or curry left for her. She would eat her phulkas with a slice of mango pickle.

Once the afternoon meal would be over, she would stoke the fires again to make some savory snacks for the evening tea. At four- thirty, all the kids would be rounded up and made to scrub again. We’d sit down on our patas (very low wooden seats) cross- legged and be given a glass of piping hot milk and the snacks buaji would have toiled all afternoon to make.

Was it just food that buaji served from that kitchen? The food also contained an enormous helping of love which she poured, like ghee, over the food. There was deep sense of obligation born of the helplessness of imposition. There was her loneliness which settled in the premature wrinkles of her serene face. Were her watery eyes run with tears brought on only by the smoke of the wood fire? Could a pill ever evoke such nostalgia?

Our soul needs to be fed too, not only our body.

Soul Food